Misinformation and #fakenews is often a problem on social media platforms, with an experiment conducted by Responsible Technology Australia (RTA) shining a spotlight on the issue.
The advocacy group for the ethical progression of technology set up a fake organisation page, Ozzie News Network, and over a two-month period, Facebook reviewed and approved a series of damaging fake news ads that RTA placed.
Chris Cooper, executive director of RTA, said the experiment shows not only how easy it is for bad actors to spread misinformation, but also the need for social media platforms to start acting in the public interest.
“Should it just be user beware? Should Australians accept that nothing online is true? We don’t think so. Facebook is what curates, amplifies and profits from this material. It should take responsibility too,” Mr Cooper said.
The experiment, which included posts telling 18-year-olds not to vote and that the new 5G network will allow the Australian police to spy on you through your phone, was designed to test Facebook’s claims it was cracking down on misinformation online.
To ensure the ads didn’t unintentionally spread misinformation, RTA tightly targeted the ads at a group of users who had consented to being in the experiment.
Mr Cooper said no traditional publisher or broadcaster would ever run ads like this, “but not only did Facebook review and approve them, even when we repeatedly reported them as misinformation they were never taken down”.
“Our fake ads deliberately play on people’s fears in ways we know are typical. This experiment proves just how easy it is to spread fake news on Facebook, and it would be easier still for an experienced malicious foreign actor. Currently there is little Australian authorities can do to fight this problem.”
The ads were only taken down following media attention, despite the Facebook audience it was targeted at seeing the ads and reporting them as false.
RTA said social media platforms need to be transparent about the extent of misinformation online.
“We need Facebook to publish a live list of the most popular viral posts about COVID-19 and other hot button topics. We need transparency about the information, for everyone to see what’s getting shared out there.”